Ozark Witch-Hazel

Hamamelis vernalis

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Illustration of Ozark witch-hazel leaves, flowers, fruits.
Ozark witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis).
Paul Nelson
Other Common Name
Vernal Witch Hazel
Family

Hamamelidaceae (witch-hazels)

Description

Ozark witch-hazel is a shrub, often sending up sprouts from the base, or (less commonly) a small tree (especially in cultivation).

Leaves are alternate, simple, 2–5 inches long, inverted egg-shaped to oval, tip blunt or rounded, base wedge-shaped to rounded, uneven; edges wavy to almost lobed above the middle; dark green above, with veins lying below the surface, paler below, with veins prominent. Leaves turn brown in autumn and tend to stay on the tree through winter.

Bark is tight, not peeling; gray to brown, often with gray blotches, pores narrow, cream-colored.

Twigs are rather stout, light brown to reddish-brown or gray, densely velvety-hairy, later smooth and light or dark gray.

Flowers January–April (rarely in December), clustered or solitary, fragrant; petals 4, orange to dark red (rarely yellow), narrow, ribbonlike or straplike, only to a little more than½ inch long.

Fruits September–October; a hard, woody, elliptical capsule ½ inch long, splitting down a 2-parted tip/ending in 4 sharp, curved points. Capsule pops open, forcibly discharging seeds to a distance of up to 30 feet. Seeds large, hard, black, 1 or 2 per capsule.

Similar species: Eastern witch-hazel (H. virginiana) has a more limited distribution, scattered in Missouri's eastern Ozarks, with a disjunct population in Barry County. It flowers November–December (rarely as early as September); flowers are yellow (not orange to dark red) and the petals can reach ¾ inch long. Leaves are strongly uneven at the base, with one side being straight and the other side being rounded to heart-shaped. Its leaves tend to fall off in autumn.

Size

Height: to 10 feet; spread: to 8 feet.

ozark_witch_hazel.jpg

Image of Ozark witch-hazel.
Ozark Witch-Hazel
Ozark witch-hazel often blooms as early as January, sometimes when snow is on the ground.

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A witch-hazel flower. It has a red center and yellow spiky petals
Witch-Hazel Flower
Ozark witch-hazel has unusual flowers and can bloom as early as January.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in gravel and rocky dry streambeds, at the bases of rocky slopes, and along streams, and rarely on wooded hillsides in rocky draws. Also widely cultivated, in part for its amazing trait of blooming as early as January, sometimes when snow is on the ground.

image of Ozark Witch-Hazel distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Occurs naturally in southern and east-central Missouri. Both of our witch-hazel species are cultivated statewide.

Human connections

This species, along with eastern witch-hazel (H. virginiana), has long been used as a source for making witch-hazel extract, used in shaving lotions and ointments for treating bruises and sprains. Witch-hazel is increasingly used for landscaping and erosion prevention. In the Ozarks, forked switches of this plant have long been used by "witch wigglers" or "water witches" (water finders) to find the best places to dig wells. Missouri's great folklorist Vance Randolph described this fascinating ritual.

Ecosystem connections

Deer eat the shoots and leaves. Beaver, squirrels, and rabbits sometimes eat the bark. Turkey and grouse eat the seeds and flowers.